A Week in Clare

Even on a cloudy day, the Lakes of Killarney are breathtaking

Even on a cloudy day, the Lakes of Killarney are breathtaking

From West Cork, the whole of the southwest of Ireland is within easy reach. Killarney is an hour and half straight north, through magnificent mountain scenery. Another hour brings you to Tarbert, on the banks of the Shannon Estuary. Take the ferry across to Killimer, and you’re in County Clare. For the trip last week, our lodging was a beautiful holiday home in Liscannor, owned by a generous friend. It’s about half way up the County, right beside the famous Cliffs of Moher – an ideal base for exploring Clare.

Anchor Inn, Liscannor. Best food in Clare!

Anchor Inn, Liscannor. Best food in Clare! This is the bar/grocery section.

While Robert attended the annual Noel Hill Concertina School I became a tourist. Clare is an astoundingly fertile area for geography, history, archaeology and culture and a wonderful place to spend time exploring with a map and guide book. I highly recommend The Burren and the Aran Islands: Exploring the Archaeology, by Carleton Jones – one of the best guides of its kind I have ever used. I was also lucky to have met a new friend online recently, Susan Byron, and in Clare I met her in person. The brains behind Ireland’s Hidden Gems, she gave me all kinds of great advice, along with lashings of tea and apple pie, about how to spend my time here.

Burren Landscape

Burren Landscape

For this visit, I confined my travels more or less to the area known as The Burren, which occupies the northern third of the county. It is a striking landscape of bare limestone hills – a karst formation full of caves and limestone ‘pavements’ and home to many species of rare and colourful wildflowers. No flowers yet – it’s still too cold. Too cold for other tourists too, so I had most places to myself. It rained and it hailed and the winds blew mightily, but in between the sun shone enough to imagine it was really spring. And if I got too cold, well, I retreated to the nearest friendly pub with a roaring fire and a pot of tea.

Eugene's Pub in Ennistymon/old ad in Valughan's in Kilfenora

Eugene’s Pub in Ennistymon/old ad in Vaughan’s in Kilfenora

The photographs I have chosen are a small selection of the sites I visited. One of the most iconic of all irish prehistoric sites is Poulnabrone portal tomb (what used to be called a dolmen). I don’t think it’s possible to take a bad photograph of it. Not too far away is Parknabinnia wedge tomb, another example of a neolithic stone monument. In researching this one on the internet I came across a recording on the excellent Voices From the Dawn site of an interview with 88 year old Paul Keane. Mr Keane’s story, familiar to us all over Ireland, illustrates how the beliefs of country people have kept these sites safe from depredation over many centuries.

Poulnabrone and Parknabinnia

Poulnabrone and Parknabinnia

Medieval ruins abound in Clare. I went twice to Corcomroe to admire the stonework, to Dysert O’Dea (one of the most impressive Hiberno-Romanesque doorways I have ever seen, ruined abbey, round tower, an unusual high cross and 15th century castle) and Kilfenora, where the crosses are stored in the ruined church under a glass roof.

Corcomroe Abbey. 13th Century Cistercian Monastery

Corcomroe Abbey, 13th Century Cistercian Monastery

I also took in, although I have not illustrated, a church in Killinaboys with a sheelenagig (more on sheelanagigs in an upcoming post) and one in Noughaval to view the ‘cyclopean’ masonry. I spent a fruitless couple of hours, as the light was fading, trying to find a way to visit a particular stone cashel but had to give up – there’s lots to see but not everything is signposted, close to a road, or down a grassy boreen.

Dysert O'Dea and Kilfenora

Dysert O’Dea and Kilfenora

Robert has written about the incredible music scene we were part of in Clare, something that is also accessible to anyone who visits. The wonders of Ireland- no matter where you go, there’s so much to do and see! If you’re coming, try to fit in some time in Clare.

Finally – a piece of whimsy. Indulge me….

First century BC Chinese head from the Terracotta Warriers; 12th Century Irish head from the Dysert O’Dea Romanesque doorway; 21st Century American head from Wrestlemania.

Just sayin’…

Dysert Fu1

The Clare Trumpet

The Clareman's Trumpet - two fine modern concertinas, by Wim Wakker (left) and Colin Dipper (right)

Two fine modern concertinas, by Wim Wakker (left) and Colin Dipper (right)

We went to Ballyvaghan, County Clare so that I could take part in the Concertina School run by Maestro of that instrument – and Clare man – Noel Hill. I have played concertinas for over 40 years but never in the ‘Irish’ style: here I am in Ireland so – in my seventh decade – it’s back to school for me! The concertina – a small squeezebox – has a long history in Clare, and in Ireland. It was pioneered by an Englishman, Charles Wheatstone, in the 1800s. Wheatstone’s real fame came as co-inventor – with William Cooke – of the electric telegraph which was arguably the forerunner of all our present day telecommunication systems (so thank you, Wheatstone, for my iPhone) but he was also prolific in his invention and improvement of many other devices, including musical ones. He took the Mundharmoniker – a German metal-reeded mouth blown instrument and turned it into the mouth-organ we know today; he then used the metal reeds and leather bellows to develop the concertina itself, a very portable instrument which has a tone and range similar to the violin. High quality concertinas bearing the Wheatstone name are still being made, as are many others, but it was the ability to mass produce these instruments at a low cost (far lower than the fiddle) which ensured their popularity in Victorian drawing rooms and in ale houses, dance halls and kitchens.

Noel Hill and Seamus Begley give a rousing finale to the Corofin Festival in Clare 2014

Noel Hill and Seamus Begley give a rousing finale to the Corofin Festival in Clare 2014

The concertina can be loud: the smaller the area of the bellows on a squeezebox, the more powerful the pressure that can be exerted on the steel reeds. Consequently the instrument has a very bright tone which carries above most others and is therefore ideal for accompanying dances in noisy rooms – or certainly was, before the days of amplification. Imagine a flag-stoned floor in a parlour or outhouse with a lively Irish set in full swing: the sound must have been fairly overwhelming, and it needed a loud instrument to be heard above the melee. Clare was and is a musical county, and gatherings for dancing (and socialising and matchmaking) were a major past-time in rural districts. The concertina was a boon on these occasions and is now an instrument forever associated with the area and its musicians. Because of its volume and its strident possibilities, the concertina has become known as ‘the Clareman’s Trumpet’.

old bog road music

I could write a whole post on the many varieties of concertina which have been developed since Charles Wheatstone took out his patent in 1829. Suffice it to say that you are likely to encounter only two types in your normal travels: the English Concertina – where each button plays the same note regardless of which direction you are moving the bellows – and the Anglo Concertina – where each button gives you two different notes: one on the push and another on the pull – similar in principle to the modern mouth organ. My instrument is the Anglo, and this is also the one most commonly (but not exclusively) found today in Irish Traditional Music.

pub signNo mention of the concertina in Clare would be complete without a note on Mrs Elizabeth Crotty of Kilrush. She lived between 1885 and 1960 and was famous in her day as an Anglo player. Crotty’s pub is still there in Kilrush, and still in the family. I went there on my first visit to Ireland almost exactly 40 years ago. Mrs Crotty’s memory had not faded then. I played in the pub on that visit and was told (by her daughter) that this was the first music that had been heard in the pub since the First Lady of the Concertina had died. It’s a different matter today: there is live traditional music most nights in Crotty’s, and in so many other establishments all over the county. More Clare concertina names include Paddy Murphy (who I was fortunate enough to meet and hear at a wild and remote session on that first visit), Chris Droney of Bell Harbour, still playing in his eighties, and many another.

cds

But Clare’s musical connections are not limited to the concertina: as we travelled around we became very aware of how important is music in all its varieties in this windswept, largely treeless but peculiarly beautiful part of the island. There are instrument makers: Finola grew up with Martin Doyle in Bray: he’s now one of the top producers of hand-made wooden flutes in the world! We visited his workshop – a well-equipped timber shed on the edge of the Burren. It was a great reunion: while the stories were in full flow in walked Christy Barry, renowned traditional flute player – also a Clare native, to join the chat.

Friends from school: Clare flutemaker Martin Doyle with Finola

Friends from childhood: Clare flutemaker Martin Doyle with Finola

Raw material - and traditional Irish flutes in the making

Raw material – and traditional Irish flutes in the making

I mustn’t forget Martin Connolly, first class button accordion maker from Ennis, nor my all-time Irish music hero Martin Hayes (perhaps there’s something about the name Martin?) renowned fiddler and Director of the Masters of Tradition Festival every year down here in West Cork: he hales from East Clare.

Martin Connolloy - Clare accordion maker

Martin Connolloy – Clare accordion maker

The roll call is endless, but perhaps pride of place (for now) should go to Willie Clancy, not a concertina player but a master of the Uillean Pipes. He has made famous the name of his home town, Milltown Malbay, where they have honoured him with a fine bronze statue. Every year in July around 10,000 people descend on the small West Clare town and swell its normal population tenfold. There are workshops, classes and concerts but, most of all, there is just constant music – in pubs and cafes, and on every street corner: the craic is mighty!

willie